On The Town: An Interview with Stephanie Donner


ach year, the law firm of Davis Graham & Stubbs LLP joins the Denver Bar Foundation and the Davis Family to sponsor the Richard Marden Davis award. The award is presented to a Denver lawyer “under the age of 40 who so combines excellence as a lawyer with creative civic, cultural, educational, and charitable leadership as to best exemplify the character and promise of Mr. Davis at that stage in his career.” Many recipients of the award are well-known leaders in our community, including Governor Bill Ritter, Justice Monica Marquez, and Justice Richard Gabriel, among many others. Stephanie Donner is the 2017 recipient and I had the opportunity to talk to her about her unique background and experience, why community service is important to her, as well as her perspective as a women lawyer. As you will read, she is well-deserving of this award and someone to keep your eye on in the future.


HARDY: Congratulations on receiving the 2017 Richard Marden Davis Award. What does receiving this award mean to you?
DONNER: When I look at all of the past recipients and the group of individuals who have received this award, I see amazing leaders in the profession of law and also the community. And to be thought of and included in this group is one of the most humbling and exciting moments for me in my career, to realize that my peers have acknowledged that I have made significant contributions to both the profession and our community.
HARDY: Tell us about your personal background.
DONNER: I am very, very, very proud to be born and raised in El Paso, Texas where I grew up along the border. I speak almost fluent Spanish and love the culture, the food and the community there. Every day I carry with me the perspective of having been born and raised in a true multi-cultural community where different socioeconomic perspectives and people of diverse backgrounds are truly integrated. From there I moved to the University of Texas in Austin and after a brief stint in San Francisco, went back to law school at the University of Houston. Although I have Texas and the border in my heart, while in law school I was able to get a clerkship in the federal district court here in Colorado. I quickly moved to Colorado; that was 16 years ago and I have never left. I’m Texan in my heart, but Colorado is home.


HARDY: You like Colorado more than Texas, right?
DONNER: Of course.
HARDY: Tell us about your professional experience.
DONNER: My dad always told me that if you never take risks you never win big, so I have tried to apply that to my career choices. Surprisingly, my dad is an attorney, and that is not really the mantra for most attorneys who are risk adverse. I would say that I have tried to seriously consider every opportunity that has presented itself and tried to remember that little bit of advice from my dad. So even though out of law school I did a clerkship and then went to a very large law firm, which was a traditional path, I always tried to consider that there could be other opportunities out there that may suit me. So with that mindset I was open when I got a call from Governor Hickenlooper’s office after he was elected to come and be his Senior Deputy Legal Counsel, and after that to become General Counsel of Galvanize, which is an education company. At each point in time, I thought I should be retreating back to the law firm life that I had thought was my destiny, but it’s been a great opportunity to see other ways to be a really effective attorney.
HARDY: You mentioned working with Governor Hickenlooper. How did that come about?
DONNER: This is an honest true story. I was taking a deposition, and I got a call from a gentleman by the name of Ken Lund from Governor Hickenlooper’s office. And I said, “No thanks, I already donated.” And he said, “Well I certainly hope you didn’t because we’ve already been elected, but I heard I should hire you. ” And I said, “To do what?” And he said, “To be Governor Hickenlooper’s lawyer.” And I said, “The Governor has his own lawyer?” And he said, “I think we should have coffee.” So after several coffee meetings and introductions to a few members of the Governor’s staff, I walked away and called my husband and said, I think I have a new job. I tried to say no, but he was relentless and it was the best decision I think I ever made.


HARDY: What did you do for Governor Hickenlooper?
DONNER: I started out as his Senior Deputy Legal Counsel as one of three attorneys in the Legal Counsel’s office (the chief and two deputies). From there, when the terrible floods of 2013 happened, Governor Hickenlooper and the Chief of Staff at the time asked me to run the flood recovery effort as the Executive Director and Chief Legal Counsel for that effort, which almost required its own legal counsel. I would travel back and forth to D.C. procuring dollars for the state. I think we ended up securing from somewhere between $300–600 million. I then became his Deputy Chief of Staff for a short while. After the Governor was re-elected, I became his Chief Legal Counsel.
HARDY: You mentioned that you now work for Galvanize Inc. What is Galvanize?
DONNER: Galvanize is an education company. We train software engineers, data scientists and entrepreneurs all within a shared workspace environment. So we consider ourselves the alignment of industry and academia.


HARDY: Is it an incubator?
DONNER: It is not an incubator. It is more of a workforce development center. So we train individuals in accelerated learning programs to make them workforce ready in either the companies that are within the space or other large corporations that need that talent. The entrepreneurs that are in the space at Galvanize are mostly tech companies that are trying to grow their business, hopefully using Galvanize talent, but Galvanize doesn’t take any portion of the income or revenues from those companies.
HARDY: What is Colorado Loves Amazon, and what is your role?
DONNER: When the Amazon RFP came out, the state, through the Office of Economic Development and Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, decided of course that they would follow their normal procedure in responding. But many community leaders thought the community should have a response as well. So some fellow community leaders came to me and said, ‘You should lead this effort as the chairperson of the Colorado Loves campaign,’ which was not just Colorado Loves Amazon, but everything about what Colorado loves.
We approached the Governor and the Metro Denver EDC and he said, in his words, “Get started immediately.” It was a campaign to create a website that would house digital assets about what people love about, and why they’re excited about, Colorado as a great place to live and do business. Within about 10 days we had curated almost 50 videos of community leaders, CEOs, artists and musicians. We had Von Miller from the Broncos, Dick Monfort from the Rockies, and everybody just immediately answered the call, cleared their calendars, and was receptive to a video crew. It sits on this website now, which is a miraculous display of not just why Amazon or any business should come to Colorado, but of the amazing community we have and how quickly we all came together. It is an accomplishment. It was a 45-day project for me and I am incredibly proud of it.


HARDY: It’s at ColoradoLovesAmazon.com?
DONNER: It’s ColoradoLoves.com and ColoradoLovesAmazon.com, so either. But once the Amazon question is resolved, which it is not yet, it will be a digital asset that will live on for a long time. Many of the videos don’t even mention Amazon.
HARDY: An important aspect of the Davis Award is community service. You’ve been so active in the community. Can you share with us your involvement, including with Girls Inc. and Galvanize Gives?
DONNER: I serve on the board for a number of organizations in the community: the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Girls Inc. of Metro Denver, the Metropolitan Baseball Stadium Commission and Keystone Policy Center. And for each of those I’m a trustee. I serve on various committees and I have various interests in each. With respect to Girls Inc., it was very fortuitous because I got incredibly involved in the girls technology and STEM programs and I have been able to integrate them into my work at Galvanize. Galvanize Gives is a program that I started at Galvanize that encourages community engagement by our employees that were aligned to our mission and vison. So for example, when I was there my team held “girls coding days” as our community engagement effort. But I also started the Galvanize Foundation, which is a 501(c)(3) geared toward providing resources for tech education for those traditionally underrepresented in tech. And that is girls, people of color, veterans and LGTBQ.


HARDY: Why is community service so important to you?
DONNER: Well, I’m fortunate. I have been the beneficiary of so many amazing people, both in my past and in my family and in my communities. Every community I’ve ever lived in has propelled me to accomplish great things and provided support. So I think it’s ingrained in me to continue to honor that. Not to mention the fact that it’s incredibly personally fulfilling to be able to contribute to the community. Hopefully it serves as an example for my children and others that they should be equally as engaged to give back for all the benefits and all the wonderful things that they have as well.
HARDY: Do you think you have faced challenges as a woman attorney that men have not faced?
DONNER: Unquestionably. I think that there are many challenges that women face, especially as you advance in your career and you’re expected to take harder positions, draw harder lines and build teams. There are stereotypes that cast women in a negative way. There are frankly jobs and roles that I think some folks are biased about having someone other than a woman fulfill. So I think by continuing to have more women in leadership positions and more women in board rooms, we can dispel some of those myths and stereotypes, but they’re real and they exist. And I think I encounter them more and more as I advance in my career and the more senior I get.
HARDY: Has being a woman attorney presented opportunities?
DONNER: I think one of the opportunities that being a woman attorney in Colorado presents is an opportunity to be a part of a community of women attorneys that is so strong and so robust. So I would say for me, I am incredibly grateful for the support of the Women’s Bar, for the support of the women in the judiciary the and support of my colleagues who are interested in rallying around and coalescing around rising women lawyers.
HARDY: The Davis Award is given to a lawyer such as yourself under the age of 40. What advice would you give to lawyers under the age of 40 in reflecting on your career so far?
DONNER: The best advice I ever got as a lawyer for practicing law is to become a really good lawyer and help your colleagues, and help your clients and do good work. And the rest of the business development and career trajectory and all of that will come. But there’s no trade-off for truly learning the trade. I would also say to be grateful always and listen a lot. I think as young lawyers and even mid-career lawyers, we’re always prepared with what to say but do not listen enough. D